Broken Windows Theory
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8 August 2013 - 23:40, by , in Strategic Planning, No comments

“If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge.” (1)

Political scientist James Wilson and criminologist George Kelling co-authored a March 1982 cover story in The Atlantic Monthly titled “Broken Windows”. They argued the best way to fight crime is to fight the disorder that precedes it… graffiti, panhandling, uncollected trash and unrepaired buildings.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani adopted the Broken Windows Theory and implemented a community-policing strategy focused on order maintenance… graffiti washed nightly from subway cars, $1.25 subway turnstile-jumpers arrested, trash picked up. Minor, seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes were found to be the tipping point for violent crime. When New York “windows” were repaired, crime dropped.

Here’s my list of Ten Broken Windows that need repair:


  • Broken Streets… Unrepaired potholes are like broken windows. If city management doesn’t care about the street condition then they won’t care if we litter them. Laura Miller was elected mayor of Dallas in 2002 running on a platform of “I’ll fix the streets”.
  • Broken Bathrooms… Dirty restrooms are like broken windows. If a hospital administrator allows public bathrooms to be dirty then he/she shouldn’t be surprised when patients complain about staph infections and poor treatment by hospital staff. I speak from recent experience!
  • Broken Words… Curse words are like broken windows. At first people say “I’m sorry”. Then they joke “Pardon my French”. But with repetition and left unchecked, offensive words then flow without even noticing that listeners have been offended.
  • Broken English… Misspelled words and poor grammar are the broken windows of our educational system. “If you want to find out what is really important to a school, don’t ask the principal, look at your child’s papers.” Says Charles Sykes in his book “Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write or Add”.
  • Broken Workgroups… Dysfunctional departments are the broken windows of organizations. Disorganized and chaotic departments staffed with people who don’t care cause a “normalization of deviance”, according to author Diane Vaughan. (2)Departures from the norm become the norm. Deviations from values, quality and customer service become acceptable.
  • Broken Software… Software “rot” is a broken window. When software errors go unfixed, programmers call it “software rot”. Broken “windows” are characterized by bad designs, wrong decisions, or poor code left unrepaired. “If there is insufficient time to fix it properly, then board it up”. (3) Deming, father of the TQM movement, often said, “Employees will do a good job if they are given the best tools and training.” Software is a common tool in the 21st century economy. If it’s rotten, so will be employee’s output.
  • Broken Bodies… Our diet is a broken window. According to the Barna Research Group, 91% of Americans want good physical health. Yet research shows “the average adult consumes in a typical year 25 pounds of candy, 22 pounds of salty snack foods and thirty gallons of beer.” (4)USA Today reports that 80% of Americans are over weight. To fix our health we must fix our eating habits.
  • Broken Families… Left unchanged, the breakdown of the father-mother family unit leads to increased poverty, school dropouts, crime and much more pain. Marriage is not dead, but it is losing ground. One out of every three children under age 18 is living with a single parent, either from divorce or out of wedlock relationships. “Statistical evidence shows that people who cohabit prior to marriage have an 81% greater likelihood of getting divorced that those individuals who do not cohabit.”(4)Strong families are founded on commitments that honor God, not trial relationships fixated on convenience.
  • Broken Standards… Abandoned values lead to abandoned truth. According to the Barna Research Group, fiscal responsibility, respect, accountability, loyalty and absolute morality have been abandoned by Americans and replaced with convenience, instant gratification, image, happiness and tolerance. Broken standards lead to broken companies. For secrecy, the management of bankrupt energy trader Enron created over 600 partnerships in the Cayman Islands to escape accountability.
  • Broken Books… Outdated accounting systems are broken windows to faulty financial results. Outdated, irrelevant and inaccurate formats fed by outdated formulas lead to disappointing and frustrating bottom-line results. In a Six Sigma world, underspending a budget is no better than overspending. Both are out of compliance. Peter Drucker recommends less accounting and more measuring by using the principles of Activity Based Management (ABM). And Professor Baruch Lev of NYU recommends ABM process-based P&L’s. (5)

Are broken books causing broken dreams in your organization? Symptomatic of a broken cost system are the lack of answers to basic questions. Questions such as …

  • Are we making a profit on our largest customer?
  • How much does it cost us to make a 25-mile delivery?
  • What does it cost to treat a patient?
  • Are we overcharging residential customers and undercharging commercial customers?
  • Are we overcosting full-page ads and undercosting classified ads?
  • Should we buy pothole repairs or continue filling them ourselves?
  • Are we productive or are we just busy?

Activity Based Management systems are the “window of opportunity” that provide answers to those questions plus many more. Taking hold of the opportunity provided by ABM begins with a management team fixated on asking the right questions and acting on the answers.

During research for his best selling book, Good to Great, (6) author Jim Collins found a pattern in great organizations called “the window and the mirror”. Great leaders “look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well. At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming bad luck when things go poorly.” The tipping point between your success or failure this year begins with fixing your “broken windows”. Who’s responsible for the repairs? Look in the mirror.

(1) Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown & Company, 2000
(2) The Challenger Launch Decision, Diane Vaughan, 1996
(3) The Pragmatic Programmer, Addison Wesley, 2000
(4) Boiling Point, George Barna and Mark Hatch, Regal Publishing, 2001
(4) Ibid.
(5) Intangibles: Management, Measurement, and Reporting, Baruch Lev, Brookings Press, 2001
(6) Good To Great, Jim Collins, Harper Business, 2001


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